Miscellaneous Interests

People are idiots (myself included)

  • One of my favorite articles:  “Among the Inept, Researchers Discover, Ignorance Is Bliss”.  Helps explain why Internet message-boards are filled with opinionated fools who screech like howler monkeys on crack.  Also makes you wonder where your own blind spots might be.  (If that New York Times link doesn't work anymore, try this one.)

  • People are idiots.  Including me.  Everyone is an idiot, not just the people with low SAT scores.  The only differences among us is that we're idiots about different things at different times.  No matter how smart you are, you spend much of your day being an idiot.

    —  Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle

Invisible Martians live among us

Well, maybe not invisible Martians – that was a real headline from an old supermarket tabloid – but it's true that complete lunatics have over-run humanities departments at universities around the world.

  • Helena Echlin enrolled in graduate school at Yale University, where she expected to learn something about literature.  What she got, though, was something else entirely.

  • Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is merciless when he deconstructs post-modernism (actually, “rips limb from limb” is a more-accurate description than “deconstructs”).

  • Lingua Franca magazine explains the difference between good writing and bad writing.

Experts should be treated with deep suspicion

I don't trust experts, especially medical personnel.  Partly, my mistrust comes from years of first-hand experience with doctors and other healthcare workers.  Partly, it comes from reading articles like these:

  • Wall Street analysts are certainly good at projecting an air of confidence (sometimes bordering on arrogance), but are they actually good at their jobs?  In other words, can they pick winning stocks and generally make accurate predictions?  Princeton economist Burton Malkiel and his colleagues have proven that securities analysts couldn't predict the side of a barn.  In general, the efficient markets hypothesis implies that nobody can out-guess the market, except possibly someone with insider information.  Market efficiency was the single-most interesting area I studied in business school.  Philip Greenspun also has a good article on this subject.

  • Wine experts are pretentious frauds, to put it bluntly.  Under blind conditions, they can't even tell the difference between red wine and white wine.

  • Art critics aren't any better than the oenophiles mentioned above.  An Australian philosophy professor showed that a simple computer program could create “artwork” capable of fooling the experts.

  • In a 1996 study, 108 radiologists were tested on their ability to interpret mammograms.  The actual cancer status of the women whose mammograms were being used had previously been verified by subsequent biopsies, surgeries, or other follow-up methods.  The results were not exactly impressive:  The radiologists missed cancer in 21% of the mammograms, thought 10% of the women with no breast disease had cancer, and misdiagnosed 42% of benign lesions as cancerous.  See, “Variability in the interpretation of screening mammograms by U.S. radiologists.  Findings from a national sample”, by Beam CA, Layde PM, and Sullivan DC.  Archives of Internal Medicine (1996), 156, pp. 209-213.  Medline abstract.

  • When airline pilots report seeing mysterious unidentified flying objects, should we assign more credibility to those sightings because they come from highly trained professionals?  Not necessarily.  Philip J. Klass has investigated scores of UFO reports and has determined that pilots – like laymen – are susceptible to making errors in judging speed, distance, size, and overall identity of moving objects in the sky.

  • Can expert criminologists identify a suspect based on clues found at a crime scene?  Reporter Michael Specter has his doubts.

  • The editor of the British Medical Journal says that most medical studies are “rubbish”.

  • But surely business gurus – like Tom Peters – know what they're talking about, right?

  • Time can be cruel – today's expert can become tomorrow's charlatan.  Portuguese neurologist António Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz received the Nobel Prize in 1949.  What was his contribution to society?  He pioneered a brain operation called a “prefrontal leucotomy”, more commonly known as a lobotomy.

Paranormal phenomena

I went through a phase where I read quite a lot about extra-sensory perception (ESP), telekinesis, remote viewing, and other paranormal phenomena.  I don't keep up with this area anymore (there are only so many hours in the day, and other fields are in greater need of debunking), but I can recommend these excellent, skeptical resources:

My hero

Renaissance physician Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) is considered the father of modern anatomy.  During his early investigations, he was forced to steal cadavers, because the Catholic Church frowned on human dissections.  Vesalius was very meticulous, and he exposed many mistakes that had been perpetuated for centuries.  Apparently, Claudius Galen – the Greek physician – wasn't as infallible as had been believed.

Vesalius's debunking activities earned him enemies, though:  “Jacobus Sylvius called him a madman (vesanus) and declared that an advance beyond the knowledge of Galen was impossible, and that Galen had not erred, but probably the human body had changed since then.  Bartholomew Eustachus of Rome declared he would rather err with Galen than accept the truth from the innovator.”

In short, Vesalius defied religious authorities, exposed the errors of “experts”, and incurred the wrath of narrow-minded fools — all in the process of making a valuable contribution to biology and medicine.  Andreas Vesalius is my hero.

Why is customer service so bad?

As consumer surveys (and personal experience) show, customer service is bad, and only getting worse.  Why is that?

  • Providing good service can be expensive, and many companies are deciding that it's not worth the cost anymore.

  • Let's face it:  Some mamas are just not bringing up their children right.  Those children eventually grow up and become receptionists, store clerks, and technicians at your Internet service provider.

  • Speaking of mamas, people apparently won't even give up their subway seats for a woman who is obviously pregnant.  Given this disturbing fact, it's probably too much to expect customer-service employees to be polite, professional, helpful, and empathetic when you encounter them in a business setting.

  • The entertainment industry certainly isn't helping matters any, either.

  • “...talk to the city's employers today and, with few exceptions, the same complaints surface again and again:  entry-level employees are defensive and inflexible,  chronically late and absent;  they dress inappropriately and treat supervisors, co-workers, and customers with disdain;  they can't speak or write properly and lack basic analytic skills.”  (Excerpted from City Journal.)

Psychosomatic aspects of medicine

  • Most people who think they have food allergies don't.  They're just neurotic.

  • Similarly, there's probably no such thing as sensitivity to monosodium glutamate, a condition sometimes known as Chinese restaurant syndrome (PDF file).

  • These ex-Lyme-disease sufferers are the most outrageous hypochondriacs I've ever encountered.  They're actually threatening to kill the doctor who first described Lyme disease.

  • Hysteria is surprisingly common.

Other areas of interest:

  • Conventional advertising is much less effective than you might think.  By contrast, most businesses underestimate the power of word-of-mouth marketing.  This is the kind of stuff they don't teach in business school, but probably should.

  • English usage: “There is no tool or endeavour more important than facility with language, for all thought and communication, other than body language gesturing and some of the fine arts, depend upon language.  Slovenliness with language rarely corresponds to clarity and precision of thought”, says someone named “Curious” (no, it wasn't me).

  • First-Amendment rights and political correctness on college campuses

  • I used to be interested in debunking urban legends, but I eventually decided that these types of myths are fairly harmless, at least as compared to the myths in the mental-health industry (see my “pseudoscience in psych” section).  One has to set priorities.

  • Princeton University doesn't have a graduate school of business, and never has.  Thus, Princeton has never awarded a Master's degree in business administration.  Why do you suppose, then, that some people claim to have an MBA from Princeton?  Very strange, I tell you.